How Pasadena Tenant Organizers Helped Win a Historic Rent Control Law
In Pasadena, California, tenants recently won comprehensive rent control, including protections from retaliation against tenants who are trying to organize. Jacobin spoke with organizers from the campaign for rent control about the victory.
- Interview by
- Qasim Zahra
On December 5, the vote to enact Measure H as an amendment to the Pasadena, California, city charter was officially certified. This measure enacted a stricter form of rent control than provided by the state, and just cause eviction criteria. The measure also mandates the creation of a rental registry and a majority-tenant rental board to deal with tenant/landlord disputes. Tenant organizers say that this may be the most complete form of rent control in the country.
The Pasadena Tenants Union (PTU) spearheaded a coalition of tenant and student organizers, along with other progressive groups across the city. This grassroots coalition collected twenty thousand physical signatures to place Measure H on the ballot. The coalition then worked to get out the vote and eventually win the rent control initiative by a large margin. Jacobin sat down with three key organizers from the campaign to discuss the measure, the movement that helped it win, and what the measure means for tenant organizing in Pasadena’s future.
The story of Measure H starts with the founding of PTU. PTU was founded in 2016 by three community organizers. They were aware of the complete lack of legal protections for tenants in Pasadena and decided that one of the earliest projects of the tenants’ union would be to pass a comprehensive law that would improve the legal protections of tenants. They drafted an initial version of the law as an ordinance and attempted to qualify for the 2018 ballot but were not able to collect enough signatures. By 2018, PTU had grown considerably, and we decided to completely redraft the law based on more of our experience actively organizing tenants and buildings.
We decided to take that experience and bump the law up from an ordinance to a charter amendment. This meant that we would have a higher signature threshold for collection but also meant that our law would be stronger, as it couldn’t be changed by city council. We added every possible tool for tenant organizing that we could think of and then tried to land it on the 2020 ballot. That didn’t happen because we couldn’t afford to pay any election attorneys to actually look over the text and clear it, so it ended up getting delayed until the 2022 election.
By that point, we were in the middle of the COVID crisis, and we felt that the city was gentrifying so rapidly that if we didn’t try it out, we would lose our opportunity. So, we decided that despite the difficulties, we were just going to go for it, and we launched this campaign in the middle of the pandemic.
Measure H is a charter amendment brought forward by the community and citizens of Pasadena and put on the ballot by collecting signatures. For the City of Pasadena, the threshold to get something qualified on the ballot for a charter amendment is quite high, so we needed over fourteen thousand valid signatures from voters to get it on the ballot. There was a huge volunteer effort in that phase. We had over three hundred individuals carrying petitions with a massive field effort to regularly have people out and about town in front of grocery stores, as well as going door-to-door.
Why couldn’t you get rent control passed through city council?
Historically, the city council has been 100 percent opposed to any effort to pass rent control. Veteran organizers in Pasadena talk about working on trying to pass some limited form of rent control for twenty-five years without getting a single city council member to support it. Our city council members had lots of opportunities to participate in a community discussion about what [rent control] law gets passed, and they chose to sit them out. This wasn’t surprising, since our mayor himself is a landlord.
After the tenants’ union failed to qualify our measure for the ballot in 2018, the city council explored expansion of their relocation assistance ordinance, which is a joke of an ordinance already. While city staff were enumerating different ways that the ordinance could be strengthened, they literally said, on the public record, that the city council had instructed them not to consider rent control because “there’s no appetite on the city council for that.” We were very aware at that point that there was no way our city council would help us pass rent control.
What do you think about tenants’ unions simultaneously organizing tenants’ associations and engaging in electoral work? What would you say to tenants’ unions that are skeptical about electoral work?
I’m unsure whether it’s a model that other tenants unions should adopt. In Pasadena, unlike neighboring Los Angeles, we didn’t have enough basic protections to maintain a base in the city. As we were trying to base-build in the tenants’ union, we were hemorrhaging members at an extremely fast rate because of massive displacement and gentrification. We were at a point where it was impossible to build the tenants’ union as a mass organization without doing the electoral work to pass our measure. For other tenants’ unions in places that already have some form of rent control and eviction protections, it would be nice to not have to put so much energy into electoral work, because it’s a black hole for resources and time.
Being in California, we have the opportunity to write our own law and put it on the ballot and get it passed. That option isn’t available to people in every state. I don’t think I would recommend other tenants’ unions do electoral work when it’s not something that they can launch independently, or if it’s simply trying to influence the powers that be, such as city council or other legislatures. I always said to myself that I would never do an electoral campaign. My reason for that was because when we talk about politicians, whether they keep their promises largely depends on where their money is coming from.
We had the opportunity to pass a law, not elect a politician, and to create a piece of legislation that’s set in stone. That makes a big difference. I have much more faith in us than in the political system to represent our best interests.
We’ve always known that we’ve wanted to organize tenants and fight against the class structure by building tenant power. We know that we don’t want to be caseworkers that are having to work on a case-by-case basis to provide Band-Aid solutions. Now that we have this law, 90 percent of the people that come to PTU on an individual basis can be pretty quickly taken care of, because they now have protections. The rental board has power to enforce those protections as well, and this will enable the tenants’ union to focus on building and organizing more tenant organizations.
Our campaign grew out of the work we were doing. We were constantly banging our heads against the wall of tenant displacement, especially in retaliation for organizing.
Our measure controls the amount that rent can be raised, and limits evictions pretty intensely, but the real takeaway is that tenants now have the security to actually fight back and organize without the fear of immediate retaliation and eviction, at least not legally.
Passing Measure H has always been only one part of our strategy. We’ve done so much more than just fighting at the ballot box. The tenants’ union has operated a hotline and an email address where people write in, and we’ve done countless clinics. During COVID, we helped people understand that they didn’t have to move during the pandemic. We’ve done eviction defense during illegal lockouts. The law gives us backing for this work and helps us to raise expectations.
In addition to adding protections for tenants and a cap on the rent increase, the measure is meant to facilitate new organizing. What sort of new organizing will Measure H help enable and how?
One of the many features that makes our measure unique is that we are specifically implementing protections for tenants trying to organize against their landlords.
Let’s say a landlord serves an eviction within six months of tenants beginning to organize a tenants’ association. There’s now a presumption of retaliation that tenants can use that didn’t exist before. If they go to court, the tenant would be able to provide evidence that they had recently started organizing a tenants’ association; if the judge or jury accepts that the evidence in fact shows that the tenant started an association recently, they would be forced to rule in the tenants favor. The new law says that if this eviction has occurred within the six months of starting a tenant association, there’s a presumption that the eviction was retaliatory and not valid.
This is essentially a “right to organize” law.
This is huge if we can do our job to let people know about it. We’ve heard from tenants that their landlord is threatening to evict them or withhold services specifically for trying to organize. Now, we can tell them that if they organize, they can fight for new rights.
Another feature of our measure that we want to use to facilitate new organizing is to impose penalties on landlords for violating the measure. A landlord that doesn’t comply with the measure can be found guilty of a misdemeanor, and under the law, they can receive a fine or even jail time for that. This gives tenants a way to threaten their landlord. Landlords already have a way to threaten tenants by fucking with their housing. Now, tenants can also use the legal system to threaten the landlord.
We’ll also now have a publicly available rental registry that will have the name of the owner of the unit, so that we can identify patterns of certain landlords who are being bad actors, and target which buildings we want to canvass and organize.
Those trends are very real, and there are some very bad actors. There’s only a handful of property owners or rental unit owners, especially with the agglomeration of properties that’s happening in Pasadena. There are fewer and fewer owners. More and more, we’re seeing these companies buying up properties and trying to flip them, and now we’ll be able to see who those people are.
Fear is the greatest enemy of organizing. In labor, there’s a fear of losing your job, which could lead to disaster. In tenant organizing, the fear is that you’re going to lose your home, which will lead to disastrous consequences. Our measure creates some protections to ameliorate some of that fear. Every time the tenant union wins, it’s easier to convince tenants that we can keep winning. Our job as tenant organizers is to help facilitate those wins and reduce people’s fears around organizing.
Going back to the rental registry, having the ownership name in the first place is so huge. It’s so funny that your landlord gets your name, Social Security number, and your credit score, but we don’t get any information about the landlord. A very powerful tactic for tenants is direct action, and so, if we can actually put a name to the person or group that’s doing things, we can stage confrontational protests to make landlords hear and pay attention to us.
Every tenant union we’ve talked to struggles with maintaining an activated core of rank-and-file tenants. As tenants, we’re often in precarious situations and move very frequently. A lot of people have to move every couple of years. Ensuring that the constant stream of evictions is slowed down is a huge way for us to strengthen the tenants’ union and build an engaged rank and file. Our power and longevity comes from the rank and file engaged in organizing to build the tenant union long term.
How has this campaign shaped your political analysis and the politics of tenants whom you’ve interacted with?
The most striking thing to me when I was canvassing was that a lot of people recognized that our union had helped them before and that they wanted to be a part of that help. That sense of solidarity rather than service is incredibly powerful. People recognize that we’re helping them because we’re also tenants and that we will need their help in the future.
I do think that the political analysis of most tenants in the city is still pretty underdeveloped, and this is a first step. Our next step is to heighten the antagonism between us and the landlords. I think many tenants do see that they share interests with other tenants. But the fact that the landlords are exploiting tenants is not well understood. Many people still feel bad for their landlords, and they don’t see that their landlord, no matter how nice they are, is extracting value from them. We couldn’t really bring out that antagonism effectively during the campaign because we knew that it could jeopardize our electoral success. Now that we’ve won, we need to ramp up that kind of political education.
The campaign was super clarifying for me in terms of how many contradictions our current political parties have. I talked to Republicans or even some libertarians who were totally on board with what we were fighting for. And then, you run into Democrats who were extremely skeptical about our fight and wouldn’t support it.
We were being cautious because we needed to win an election and try to alienate as few people as possible while still being clear about what we were demanding. Now, we can clearly uplift these contradictions and really emphasize to tenants that your landlord is not your economic ally. They are extracting value from you. You’re paying their mortgage.
One of the worst things about running an electoral campaign is not being able to state those contradictions clearly, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t want to do this again. I had to bite my tongue, and as a union, I think we were not able to make our messaging as clear and as radical as we would have wanted. We wanted to explain to people that they’re performing labor and making a wage and that their landlord is taking a cut of that wage and using that cut to buy an asset. That’s hard to explain to people, because some of them still see landlords as providing a service.
I really like the point you made on the need to heighten the antagonisms between landlords and tenants with tenant organizing. Can you expand on that?
A lot of our job as organizers is to convince people that they deserve the basic necessities of life. That goes beyond just telling people that their landlord is greedy and evil. If people don’t think that they deserve those rights, they’re not going to be willing to fight.
We also have to recognize that people learn way more through experiencing direct action than from our telling them that their landlord is greedy. There’s something about showing up to an eviction defense and seeing a landlord throw out someone’s entire livelihood. It changes the way you look at the world.
We want to do more reflection to try to connect the experiences that people have to a broader ideology to help people locate why they’re going through what they’re going through.
Another point to emphasize to tenants is the nature of the arguments being made by our opposition. Every argument from the real estate industry, landlords, or individuals opposing rent control is essentially a threat. For landlords, the threat is that they are going to stop renting out their units and dry up supply or not maintain the habitability of their units. From developers, the threat is that they’re going to stop building housing if it’s not profitable to rent it out. It’s like every argument against rent control is basically a threat from people who own property.
What I really wanted to tell developers and landlords during the campaign was that our eventual goal is to convert that housing into public housing. Their primary argument is that they’re in charge, and that if we try to regulate housing, they’ll make our lives even worse. Our fight has to extend to public housing to ensure that these people can’t hold their ownership as leverage over us when we demand justice.
I want to ask about the connection of PTU to Socialists of Caltech (SoC), a student socialist organization based out of Caltech that two of you are involved in. Can you talk about the Socialists of Caltech and the role it played in passing Measure H?
After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, a random group of people on campus got together and realized that we were all interested in socialist thought. We all knew that we wanted to do something, and at the time Caltech didn’t have any other political groups on campus — no college Democrats or Republicans. At the beginning, we did a lot of reading-group discussions and discussed the ways that misinformation was affecting science interpretation out in the world. We also knew that we didn’t want to be stuck in an academic bubble, whether just in science or just organizing at Caltech.
Around the same time, the tenant union had formed with a group of people separate from Caltech, and we heard about them from their initial push for rent control. We realized that PTU was a great place for us to learn how to organize and apply what we were reading about, and that the goal of housing justice was one that was shared by the various tendencies within SoC. We helped in the signature-gathering phase of that initial push back in 2018. While that was going on, we helped to build the tenant union into a larger and more formal organization.
In preparation for the 2020 election, members of Socialists of Caltech formed a working group and helped to rewrite the measure. The technical writing required for writing the measure came easily to us because of our backgrounds. I remember thinking, “Writing laws is exactly like writing a math paper!”
You don’t necessarily expect a group of scientists from an esteemed technological institution to be really in touch with the working class. The fact that we were all renters helped to close that gap and unite us around common interests with the general population.
I think if we had been a Young Democrats club getting involved in this campaign, it would have looked very different. As a socialist group, we understood that we had a specific and pragmatic purpose for fighting for this measure. We were using it as one tool to advance tenant power, and we knew the limitations that this tool would have. We have no illusions about the nature of our political system. Because of that, we know that this measure passing is just creating a tool that we will use to build toward a future revolution.
Democrats are quitters — they would have seen how stacked the odds were against us and quit way earlier. SoC had a really high level of commitment, and we ended up collecting 40 percent of the signatures collected by volunteers. One Caltech grad student collected the most signatures of any volunteer on the campaign.
I also want to make a note about discipline here. SoC isn’t a formal organization, and we don’t really even have formal membership. But because we’ve done so much political learning together as a group, we feel a lot of accountability toward each other, and that allowed us to have a lot of discipline throughout this long and arduous campaign.
SoC also had weekly, two-hour-long organizational health meetings where we would reflect on how we were behaving with each other and how we could make our organization more functional. That was a foundation for us to really trust each other. People still identify with our group after they leave Caltech as well. We had friends on the East Coast, friends in Texas, and even a friend in Luxembourg who would make phone calls for us during the campaign.
There were so many days when I didn’t want to canvas or collect signatures, but I kept thinking about how I didn’t want to let the tenants of Pasadena down. I knew that none of my SoC comrades were going to let the people of Pasadena down, and that motivated me to continue going.
To that point, I predict that in a few years’ time, if you polled the city, the rent board is going to be really popular. The people who were assholes at the door and who voted no are probably going to like it. It’s important not to let those people influence your campaign and push you to the center. If we don’t stay true to our principles, we won’t be able to implement policy that those people will come around to eventually.
In defining those principles, I also want to give a shout out to the fact that SoC has a lot of international members. That gives us a unique perspective because the American imagination is really limited, especially because of how bad the material conditions are here. A lot of people in our group came to socialist politics through anti-imperialism because many of them come from a colonized nation. That’s also part of why we didn’t want to affiliate with larger socialist organizations in the United States, which have often avoided taking principled stances toward imperialist powers.
Anything else to add?
I want to give a shout out to our campaign consultants, Red Bridge Strategies. If you are a tenant union that wants to run a ballot measure, or anyone that wants to run an electoral campaign, you need to hire Jen Snyder and Avery Yu from Red Bridge Strategies as consultants. If you do what they tell you to do, you’ll win.
I want to restate that it’s our job to raise people’s expectations about what they deserve and their own power. We have to fight back against the idea that we as a campaign should be lionized for winning something for the people of Pasadena. The tenants were the campaign, and I’m one of them. We’re helping people to stand up for themselves and fight for their own interests, and this campaign was successful because those people did just that.
Tell us how Measure H came to be on the ballot.